Barely noted in most news reports but this past week, the US Navy announced that it had tested a new missile known as the W76-2. The Washington Times reports that the W76-2 is a “submarine-launched, low-yield device designed to counter Russia’s arsenal of smaller missiles and to give the US. a way to retaliate in kind.”
A DOD spokesman noted that: “In the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, the department identified the requirement to ‘modify a small number of submarine-launched ballistic missile warheads’ to address the conclusion that potential adversaries, like Russia, believe that employment of low-yield nuclear weapons will give them an advantage over the United States and its allies and partners.” The spokesman continued: “[The W76-2] strengthens deterrence and provides the United States a prompt, more survivable low-yield strategic weapon; supports our commitment to extended deterrence; and demonstrates to potential adversaries that there is no advantage to limited nuclear employment because the United States can credibly and decisively respond to any threat scenario.”
The “Nuclear Posture Review,” referred to is a document that the Trump Administration put forth outlining its position on nuclear policy. The Trump administration feels that during the previous administrations, Russia, in particular, has made advancements in its weapon’s arsenal, while the United States has not, which has caused some to believe that Russia may have the upper hand in this area. The Nuclear Posture Review was meant to address this.
The thinking underlying this review reads very much like deterrence theory of the cold war. The W76-2 is one of the first publicly announced results of that document. It reportedly gives America a way to combat the Russian advancements in low yield nuclear weapons. The thinking is that the deployment “strengthens deterrence and provides the United States a prompt, more survivable low-yield strategic weapon; supports our commitment to extended deterrence; and demonstrates to potential adversaries that there is no advantage to limited nuclear employment because the United States can credibly and decisively respond to any threat scenario.”
Proponents of the system believe the US needs a low-yield nuclear option in order to credibly counter Russia, which has invested heavily in a variety of nuclear systems in the last decade. Defense officials believe Russia would potentially use a smaller nuclear weapon in order to deter America from entering or extending a conflict, under the “escalate to deescalate” thinking; if the U.S. only has larger strategic weapons to retaliate with, it may hesitate. This hesitation would give the Russians an advantage the advocates of this thinking believe.
Opponents of tit for tat deterrence doctrine question whether such a doctrine is realistic, and also argue that no nuclear system can truly be non-strategic. These opponents have raised concerns that having a low-yield and high-yield warhead able to be launched on the same submarine-launched missile creates a situation where an adversary doesn’t know which system is being used and therefore reacts as if the larger warhead has been launched. This thinking makes the argument that a nuclear war can be limited to small yield exchanges questionable. Will an opponent wait until a war head detonates before acting? Assuredly no!
In short this means that deterrence is strengthened because low yield nuclear weapons can be used and there is no need to escalate to larger yield weapons because we do not have a comparable small yield weapon. The logic is pure cold war deterrence theory and is potentially flawed.
Additional concerns are that this is the beginning of a new arms race. An arms race that cannot be tempered by an arms control agreement. How does one verify yield of a nuclear weapon. In the past nuclear arms control agreements have focused on delivery vehicles (planes, and different kinds of missiles)… These are things that can be seen and counted. Warhead yield is quite another issue.
The deterrence theory argued above and the inability to control warhead yield give me pause. In arguing that smaller war head yield supports deterrence one can imagine the same argument for huge yields enhancing deterrence. Being able to limit a nuclear war has its advantages, but any nuclear war must be considered a catastrophic event.